Diverse Ecosystems Support Better Economies


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The Raja Ampat Islands have some of the greatest marine diversity on earth. Biodiversity, human health, and thriving economies are connected. Photo: By permission of Dr. Bonds

The global North is wealthy, while countries around the equator are poor. Although this is a stereotype, there is also some truth in it, and it’s this truth that has brought to light some intriguing connections between biodiversity, human health, and strong economies.

Dr. Matthew Bonds is an economist who has studied the connections between disease and economics through the Harvard Medical School.

While economists often attribute poverty in equatorial regions to the different political and economic institutions that exist in those regions, Bonds saw something different in the connections between latitude and poverty.

In a study published December 27th, 2012 in the journal PLOS Biology, Bonds explores how other social and ecological factors might play a role in economics. What he discovered was a consistent gradient: areas farther from the equator did tend to have less poverty.

In an interview with Decoded Science, Bonds pointed out that when an ecologist sees a geographic gradient, it’s a trigger to look at the factors that might underlie this biogeographic phenomenon.

Latitude, Disease, and Poverty Are Connected

Using statistical techniques to analyze large scale trends in global ecology, what Bonds found was a clear correlation between latitude, disease, and poverty.

The number of diseases you get, and the income that you have, often seem to depend on where you live in the world, and they specifically depend on what latitude you live in.

This makes sense: people who are ill have a harder time engaging in economic activities. Even within nations, temperate areas that are farther from the equator tend to have more robust economies. This part of the study alone has profound implications, and suggests that an investment in combating disease will also lead to stronger economies.

Biodiversity Correlated With Lower Incidence of Disease

While Bonds was analyzing the data, he tried to control for a number of variables. While he was doing so, he made an interesting secondary discovery: a diverse ecosystem is connected to lower rates of human disease. He had actually assumed the opposite. You might think that in areas with a lot of biodiversity, there would be more diversity of disease. While tropical areas do have many diseases, when Bonds studied areas at similar latitudes, the places with greater biodiversity had less of a human disease burden. People in ecologically-rich areas were experiencing less illness than those in neighboring countries at a similar latitude.

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